The most moving moment of the awards show that kicked off the 30th annual Folk Alliance International conference Wednesday night in Kansas City, Missouri, was a 49-year-old concert clip featuring an artist who passed away five years ago.
The artist was Richie Havens. The clip, of course, was from his unplanned festival-opening set at Woodstock — a set that was supposed to last 20 minutes, but wound up running over three hours because the slated bands were traffic-jammed. When he ran out of songs, he improvised, adlibbing on the spot. “Freedom!” he shouted out, again and again. Not as a lyric, as a declaration. Then he spliced in the spiritual “Motherless Child,” and made folk music history.
The clip was part of a video retrospective honoring Havens as the winner of the posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award: Legacy, one of several accolades presented at the International Folk Music Awards. The ceremony also celebrated the organization’s own 30-year history, which began in 1989 when concert presenters Clark and Elaine Weissman gathered 130 people together in Malibu, California in hopes of solidifying and strengthening their musical community. They forged the North American Folk Music & Dance Alliance, which became Folk Alliance International in 2003. Wednesday, executive director Aengus Finnan announced this year’s conference attracted a record 2,700 artists, presenters, managers, producers, DJs, journalists and others to the Westin Crown Center, including 1,000 first-timers.
The awards have grown, too; for the first time, they were held off-site, in Kansas City’s historic former Vaudeville house, the Folly Theater. Three-time Grammy nominee Ruthie Foster, the night’s emcee, opened the show with a powerful version of her song, “Phenomenal Woman.” Fellow Grammy nominee Guy Davis (son of acting royalty Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis) delivered a particularly rousing rendition of Havens’ song. Performances also came from young Nashville siblings Giri and Uma Peters, who played “How to Help the World” on mandolin and banjo, respectively, and Spirit of Folk Award winner Anaïs Mitchell, who sang her oh-so-topical tune, “Why We Build the Wall.” Originally written in 2006 for Hadestown, a theatrical project that became an album, a tour, and, eventually, an off-Broadway production, the song gained new relevance during the last presidential campaign.
All those songs addressed prominent themes in the folk community. This year’s conference has focused attention on issues of sexual abuse and harassment in addition to always-present themes of protest and activism.
Spirit of Folk Award winner Martyn Joseph invoked his hero, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, before noting, “We are a big army and we should be making a helluva noise right now.”
Even the Album of the Year award, one of three member-voted honors, seemed particularly timely: It went to Rhiannon Giddens for Freedom Highway. Austin duo Ordinary Elephant won Artist of the Year, and Nashville singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle won Song of the Year for “You Didn’t Call My Name.” That award was sponsored by American Songwriter.
The Kingston Trio presented Havens’ award. Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards also went to Peter, Paul & Mary and Elektra Records. John Oates presented the People’s Voice Award to Bonnie Raitt, who sent a video acceptance noting how important activism has always been to her, and how much it’s needed.
“It’s great to see all of these people recognized,” said Foster. “What a community.”
The night ended with a performance by the Staley High School Falcon Chorale and a group sing-along of “Goodnight, Irene,” which, for many attendees, invoked the memory of singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, a prominent member of the organization who passed away in 2017. As Finnan had noted earlier in the evening while acknowledging his beloved predecessor, Louis Meyers, in a community as strong and tightly knit as this one, the losses hurt. But the commitment continues — and gets passed along as newcomers join the fold.